Beijing lied, Hong Kong died: Brash beacon of freedom subdued by communist China

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By John J. Metzler, March 28, 2024

There was no hint of dissent in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council as its 88 members passed Article 23, a piece of draconian domestic Security legislation which “complements” Beijing’s own 2020 Security stamp on the Special Administrative Region. Instead, the local lawmakers, led by Chief Executive John Lee, proudly called their unanimous vote a “Historic Moment.”

It was so indeed, but for all the wrong reasons.

Hong Kong, a once vibrant and often socially brash city of 7.6 million people on China’s coast, has seen its freedoms slowly diminish into a more reserved if not “patriotic” Chinese political cookie mold. The once admired and vaunted Hong Kong “brand” is now losing its luster.

When Britain left Hong Kong in 1997, the island’s Basic Law, a mini constitution, guaranteed that for a fifty year period Beijing would do nothing to coerce or restrict political, religious, media or economic freedoms. That was the deal, and China carefully kept to best behavior for about twenty years. Until recently.

Beijing’s political plan for Hong Kong was alluringly simple; one Country Two Systems. Under the deal authoritarian China would politically coexist with free and democratic Hong Kong. But beyond British Hong Kong, the plan would serve as a lure to the self-ruled island of Taiwan to peacefully settle China’s division. While there was never much enthusiasm on democratic Taiwan for the offer, China’s Hong Kong crackdowns underscored Beijing’s true nature.

Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily

Over more than a decade now, the once free press has morphed into “patriotic” read PRC regime friendly media. The arrest and imprisonment of free press publisher Jimmy Lai chilled the media space and brought a level of “obedience” to Hong Kong’s reporting.

The term “Patriotism” in the Chinese context means loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, not the wider nation-state as many would assume.

When this writer was in Hong Kong just after the July 1997 handover to China, a common adage was the tale of the Golden Goose; The Goose being rich and prosperous Hong Kong. The Chinese communists would not foolishly kill the Golden Goose which lays the golden eggs, economic prosperity, for a single meal!  Rather they will leave it alone to lay more golden eggs encouraging continued prosperity.

Hong Kong’s once booming stock market is now half its 2020 value! Equally the city faces the undertow of China’s own slowing economy on which Hong Kong is economically intertwined.

Fast forward to 2020 and tough Beijing security legislation after violent street protests a year earlier which is now followed by Article 23.

Since the 1997 Hong Kong “handover” from Britain, a once politically agnostic but commerce-centric city state has evolved into another dutiful province of the People’s Republic of China.

After the handover many experts wondered how long it would take for the spirit and political vibrancy of the former Crown Colony’s freedoms to influence the political body politic of Mainland China?

Many opined: Will China soon become like freewheeling Hong Kong? Today it’s the other way around, Hong Kong is becoming more like Mainland China, albeit still a far more economically vigorous version.

Business is really feeling the pinch of Beijing politics; From COVID to Chinese communist political crackdowns and toughening “security legislation,” Hong Kong has adopted Article 23. The legislation covers Sedition, Treason, Insurrection, Espionage; falling afoul of the broad- brush Law is probably easier than most people think or presume.

Hong Kong’s once admirable civil rights and political freedoms are under assault from security legislation intended to safeguard the CCP’s stifling monopoly on power and opinion.

Since the 1997 Hong Kong “handover” from Britain, a once politically agnostic but commerce-centric city state has evolved into another dutiful province of the People’s Republic of China.

Volker Turk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that broadly defined and vague provisions in the bill could lead to the “criminalization of a wide range of conduct protected under international human rights law, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and the right to receive and impart information.”

The European Union raised concerns over the “potential impact on the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.”

Condemnation of the legislation has been both bi-partisan and widespread in the U.S. Congress. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) stated, “Article 23 legislation will only further strip the people of Hong Kong of their rights and freedoms and subject them completely to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Hong Kong was once a government of Laws; a clearly applied rule of Common Law ensured the region’s security and prosperity.

Today the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region it is not a society ruled through the Law but by the Law.  That’s Beijing’s Law and political rules.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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